MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- As the first wave of Marines from Camp Pendleton arrived at the I Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters building, they were greeted by their loved ones and presented with a special gift not usually handed out with a full-fighting load.
The gift they received is a hand-carved wooden pen, which is part of a national program called Freedom Pens. The program's goal is to get every service member a pen as a token of appreciation.
"I wanted to do something tangible that they can think about and know that people care about them," said one of the makers of the pens, Ruthe Ingram of Watsonville, Calif., who was at the homecoming handing out pens and hugs to the returning Marines.
Ingram got involved with the program after she attended college classes in cabinetry at Orange Coast College. She then got caught up with the Freedom Pens program when she attended a "Freedom Pen Turn-A-Thon," where fellow woodworkers join together to produce pens to give to the troops.
Since her involvement with the program, the 70-year-old wood turner has become known as the Pen Queen, due to her avid involvement with the project.
Ingram ran around trying to get to all of the Marines before they left, handing out hugs and her small tokens of appreciation to everyone she met and thanking them for what they do.
Rather than mailing the pens, Ingram came to the homecoming herself because she thought it was a better approach.
"This way is definitely the way to go," said Ingram as she ran around handing out pens. "It makes it much more personal."
Previously, Ingram mailed the pens to troops already overseas. She decided to do it in person so it would be more personal.
"I've sent over 5,000 of the Freedom Pens to the Middle East already," said Ingram. Now I'm focusing on meeting troops as they come home and thank them for the sacrifices they made."
The pens also serve as a healing process according to Tony DeRosa, a friend of Ingram and supporter of the Freedom Pens program.
"Writing is a good way to help them with the transition," he said, explaining how sharing the emotions by writing can help cope with the stressful and traumatic times Marines face.
Some of the Marines freshly back were touched by Ingram and her fellow wood turner's efforts.
"I feel very grateful," said Lance Cpl. Francisco A. Garcianiguera as he packed up his gear to head home. "The fact that they went to all the trouble to make the pen and come here and present it to me shows that they appreciate what I do."
Major Gerneral Michael R. Lehnert the Commanding General of Marine Corps Installations West, supports Ingram's efforts as they mirror his own endeavors to support the troops.
As a fellow wood turner, Maj. Gen. Lehnert has made and given away more than a thousand pens since 1995, when he started making them.
"I think it's a great tangible way to demonstrate to Marines that we appreciate the sacrifices they made and that people in the community support them," said Maj. Gen Lehnert.
More than 100 Marines came home Jan. 19 and the Pen Queen had a pen for all of them.
"I met Ruthe and her grandson and took her to pick up wood specifically from Pendleton," explained Maj. Gen. Lehnert. "That way, when they receive it, it's more personal because it's from home."
Being at the homecoming was a unique experience for Ingram and the families she touched.
"It was a truly amazing experience," she said about the homecoming. "I enjoyed seeing the faces of the service members and their families. To see their faces light up when they are greeted by someone they don't know that appreciates the sacrifices they made is an awesome experience."
The Pen Queen continues her work and plans on coming back to Pendleton when the rest of the I MEF returns home to spread the awareness to Marines that people do care about what they do and show that the pen is mightier than the sword.